For Which We Stand

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

For Which We Stand


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been traveling around the country recently as part of a nationwide post-9/11 effort to promote debate about civic values in schools and colleges. According to the Boston Globe, Kennedy spent a day in that city's top public school, Boston Latin Academy, and proposed a scenario in which "students accidentally end up on a three-day layover in a very poor (imaginary) nation called Quest, where Drummer, a young charismatic man, preaches that the decadent United States should be destroyed. Quest citizens say Drummer offers hope for change and that America is corrupt." Quest is described as pervasively corrupt; although it has a written constitution, "promises are not kept." The students were challenged to defend American democracy.

The idea of getting students to excavate and examine the values they hold most dear is an excellent one, although I must say I'm suspicious of such a flatly simplistic scenario. I'd want to know a lot more about the politics, history and economy of Quest. What's driving the resentment--is it poverty? If so, is the anti-American sentiment merely due to the abstract symbolic wealth of the United States, or is there some specific industrial business presence in Quest--say an Enron--whose unethical exploits have, by exacerbating living conditions, been mistaken for the people and values of the United States? Does anti-American resentment in Quest cut across all socioeconomic spectra--hinting at some more ideological or religious discontent? Or is it the result of some specific trauma, like Bhopal? Has the United States supported oppressive regimes in the region? Is Quest an ally, like Iran or China?

I suppose Justice Kennedy would not appreciate a devil's advocate like me; I suppose he wants students to imagine Quest along the lines of Zimbabwe or Iraq. I suppose the "right" answer would be that I'd spend my three days proselytizing, as I do right here at home, about the salutary effects of due process, free and honest elections, the Bill of Rights and equal opportunity for all. But any good player in strategic games knows that studying the motives and designs of the opposition makes all the difference.

So I question what was accomplished by the vagueness of this exercise. Indeed, its open-endedness made me think of an essay I read recently by Harvard law professor Richard Parker, in the spring issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Parker urges the "making" of patriotism as a mobilization of emotion--"a political equivalent of love"--that must be "grounded like electricity." He poses a set of questions to test those sensibilities: "Recall your own early reactions to the September 11 attack. (1) Did you feel that it was, in fact, an attack 'on the United States'? (2) Did you believe that the United States should defend itself--including preemptive self-defense to the extent necessary? (3) Did you focus mostly on the past misdeeds of our country.... (4) Did you adopt a 'pragmatic' stance and argue that we ought to govern ourselves by attending to 'the way we and our actions are perceived' abroad? …

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